The Heart of It
Resting my stomach over the sun warmed bow, I stared down into the Presumpscot, trying to see to the river’s bed of mud and rocks to photograph the secrets beneath me. My Nikon D700 held tightly in my hands separated me from the water´s touch. Sweat trickled down my forehead. Grasses and lily tubers waved gently just beneath the surface, but all I saw, at first, were a few large freshwater snails that had been too slow to escape on their one foot. Dragon flies lit and flew in no discernible pattern around my head. I could hear red winged blackbirds, finches, chickadees, and sparrows intermixed with the sharp call of crows and the screech of the red tailed hawk I had photographed just moments before switching to my macro lens and stopping the canoe in a bed of lily pads and water poppies.
I waited. I didn’t have much time because this was a stolen hour in a day fraught with childcare, business calls, and photography obligations. It took time for the tiny river lives that I had disturbed with my paddle, and with the continued presence of my canoe, to return to the daily business of scurrying and scuttling among the river vegetation. Then they were just there, and I was lulled by the tiny silver fish that flitted in small schools, the bugs and spiral shaped snails, and water striders journeying in and around the various algae and stalks. Once I figured out how to look, there was an underwater world to photograph as I knew there must be. My husband, Eric, was silent in the stern, holding the canoe steady, waiting for me to finish so that we could paddle back down river to children and work.
As I allowed myself to release the tension in my muscles, I scanned with my camera slowly, back and forth, clicking and refocusing. An overwhelming fatigue settled onto me, wrapping itself around my mind. There was never time available to just take. I was doing my best to use this unforeseen free hour valuably, but resentment was muddying its ticking seconds. I had just finished reading The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. He unabashedly wrote about his ten years experimenting with LSD and taking psychedelic journeys. I was jealous of the free time he had to play with drugs. I would like the opportunity to experiment: with seconds, minutes, and hours, to know what it felt like to not always work, coming and going.
I’d never been out of the United States, rarely out of the northeast. I was envious of people like Mattheissen who decided they’d like to go to Nepal for a few months and then did. These types of people had children but sent them to school followed by afternoon daycare or babysitters. Once dinner and baths were complete, the kids would go to bed to be rushed off to school again amidst the next morning’s chaos.
While these parents were supposed to be fettered, they were free. I was feeling old and tired. I had not planned to have a young child while in my forties. How much time would there be left for me? I couldn’t manage to go for a run if my seven year old begged me not to. I tell myself that in a few years, Morgan will not ask me to stay. In a few more, she will leave. Yearning for my freedom yet thinking of its reality without her, makes me feel like I´m going to cry. I am of a masterpiece of opposites.
I want to just breathe and think in uninterrupted silence.
I sit up and stretch my back, lowering my camera to see with bare eyes. It is very hot, the air thick with August humidity and insects. Pickerel weed bobs against the sides of the canoe, its purple spikes shaped like tiny funnels. It is everywhere among the lily pads and grass, extending about two feet above water level, festooning the banks and inlets. The green leaves that cradle the elongated violet and deeply blue clusters above the water, are heart shaped.
“Look at the hearts,” I say, interrupting the dragon flies´ unending buzz that stops abruptly at the sound of my voice. “There are hearts floating on the water.”
“I see them.” Eric, always supportive, adds, “The lily pads are shaped like hearts, too.” I look and they are, holding their yellow bowl shaped flowers up out of the water.
“It’s so weird,” I breathe. “I never noticed them before. They are almost spinning in the current.” I decide to photograph the hearts and when I do, I see hearts everywhere. The pickerel weed has two tiny yellow spots on its central lobe. These two spots join into a heart. I feel a thrill of discovery as I study the floating tubers, buds, and leaves, all appear heart shaped. I forget my fatigue as I turn my head to see the woods and the river right in front of me for what might be the first time.
“Let’s keep paddling,” Eric says, and he backs the canoe slowly out of the bed of aquatic plants that rub, protesting, against the canoe’s belly. We move up the river toward the railroad track bridge. Beneath is a beautiful patch-worked stone tunnel like something out of Tolkien´s Middle Earth for Hobbits and Elves. A beaver dam sits at its back.
“Look at that,” I shout in confused amazement, pointing at a maple tree on the bank that displays heart shaped white and green fungi. “Is this for real?” I photograph the tree rapidly, almost afraid that the hearts like the red tailed hawk earlier will screech and disappear. A double winged dragon fly lands only inches from me. A painted turtle slips with a splash from a log. I am inside the natural world in a way I never have been before. A heron thunders out of the brush on the opposite bank and flies small into the distance. I realize I am holding my breath.
“Looks real to me,” says Eric, patient, pragmatic, not one to lose himself in the imaginary. “But we better turn back. It’s going to take us at least thirty minutes to get to the drop-in and load the canoe.”
Studying the banks, the trees, and the water, trying to see everywhere at once in my eagerness to discover more hearts, it is only seconds before the Dana Warp Mill appears around a bend, a mill filled with businesses working endlessly to survive in a sinking economy. The river trip concluded, I lift the canoe, with Eric’s help, onto my Toyota Matrix and drive the half mile home. I make Morgan a snack while my photos download, and she reads to me from Edward Eager’s [I]Half Magic[/I]. I scroll through my pictures, my blood thrumming, excited by the flower, leaf, and fungi hearts crisp and contrasted on my computer screen. I had almost feared that what I had seen wasn’t real, like nature was showing me a part of itself that couldn’t be recorded. I scrolled back to my first pictures and my breath caught. There was my red tailed hawk and on the underneath of his wings were black markings that looked like hundreds of connected hearts.
Matthiessen did get to travel to distant continents and to drug enhanced scenic vistas of his mind, but I had learned, I still had a lot to discover right here. Sitting in my computer chair, Morgan beside me, Alex in the kitchen eating tortilla chips and salsa, I understood I kept them safe like the heart shaped lily pads held the flowers. They needed me, just as the river needed its turtles, snails, fish, bumble bees, flowers and its dragon flies, coming and going, always moving. And just as Eric steadied the canoe for pictures, he held me on course for life like the banks held the river, and the hearts connected us all.